A bridge back to the streets?
Compassion | Los Angeles’ new homeless program sends more people back to the streets than to permanent housing
by Charissa Koh
Posted 12/02/20, 05:32 pm
During the coronavirus pandemic, residents of Venice, a hip beach neighborhood in Los Angeles, complained of increasing crime and homeless encampments, especially around a nearby “bridge” shelter. Parents told stories of taking their children to school and passing homeless men exposing themselves.
Diana Sieker, who lives across from one of the area’s main homeless camps, told The Argonaut the encampment had been growing for the last five years but mushroomed in 2020. She called it “unchecked” and “just like the Wild West.”
In the past, LA’s homelessness policy focused on building permanent housing and moving people in as fast as possible. But in 2018, the city shifted its policy to include building quick, cheap “bridge shelters” all around the city—such as the one in Venice—to get homeless people off the streets more quickly while working toward long-term housing. Two years into the program, 1,500 people have moved into bridge shelters, but only 15 percent have then moved on to permanent housing, according to data the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority provided to the Los Angeles Times. The majority returned to the streets or left without explanation.
Despite the city’s repeated efforts and massive spending, the homeless population keeps increasing. The “housing first” approach employed by LA, along with California’s state government, attempts to get homeless people into permanent housing as fast as possible, even if that means lowering standards for occupants such as getting clean and sober. The slow rate of new housing development, especially in expensive coastal cities like LA, has stood in the way of housing first.
In April 2018, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a new program called A Bridge Home. “We need to stand up more emergency shelters fast and we need to do it now … shelters that serve as a rest stop on the path to permanent housing,” Garcetti said. The city would build shelters in all 15 city districts in the next three years. Nonprofits would operate the shelters, and the city would fund them. The first opened downtown in September 2018. Since then, nearly 30 more have opened, some despite neighborhood opposition. By early next year, bridge shelters will have added almost 2,000 beds to the city.
Garcetti originally allocated $20 million from the city’s general fund for the program, but its budget has ballooned to $187 million with the addition of state emergency funds, the Times reported.
John Maceri is CEO of The People Concern, which runs El Puente, LA’s first bridge shelter. Maceri said the city’s original goal of moving shelter residents to permanent housing in six months was ambitious. The process—getting the resident identification, income, rental assistance, and a suitable home—can take months or more depending on the resident’s cooperation and needs.
The bridge program aims to move people into permanent housing quickly, not to address the reasons someone became homeless. Residents at El Puente must follow some simple rules, including no drugs on the premises and keeping curfews. But they don’t have to be sober to stay. So far, 141 people have stayed at El Puente, with 43 moving into their own homes. Sixty-two people left the program for other reasons, including hospitalizations, switching to a different housing program, or because they needed a higher level of care. Some left voluntarily to return to the streets.
Some just aren’t ready to work for change, which Maceri said is a long-term mission. “That’s just the nature of the work,” he said. “Our philosophy is to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes … which often takes months or years with some individuals. Our job is not to give up on them.”
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Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.